China is flexing its muscles: time to worry

It would be crazy if a bunch of five uninhabited rocks precipitated a military conflict between two world powers. That doesn't mean it won't happen

Share
Fact File
  • 7km2 Area of the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands

It would be crazy if a bunch of five uninhabited rocks, covering no more than seven square kilometres, precipitated a military conflict between the world’s second and third largest economic powers. Crazy, and most unlikely: but all the same, it is strange how little attention is being paid to the increasingly fraught dispute between China and Japan over what the former calls Diaoyu and the latter Senkaku.

On the other hand, I have just returned from a week in Japan, so perhaps I am out of touch with the priorities in Britain (and maybe mainland Europe, too): what to do about the publication of fuzzy photos of the Duchess of Cambridge without her top on. Meanwhile in Asia... there have been mass demonstrations in 80 cities across China against the decision of the Japanese government to buy the disputed islands from their private owner (a Japanese businessman); various Japanese multinationals, such as Canon and Panasonic have closed down their factories in China, to avoid the risk of being stormed by irate local mobs – one firm has already seen some of its production facilities destroyed; and an aide to the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that Japan’s Self Defence forces might need to be deployed, as “we cannot rule out the possibility that China will deploy its military ”.

Today might be the peak of the disturbances, which have to be seen in the context of Chinese resentment over historic injustices: 18 September marks the anniversary of the Manchurian incident of 1931, the bomb plot contrived by the Imperial Japanese Army to justify the invasion of Manchuria. This explains why the Japanese School in Beijing has been closed today (and yesterday) but hopes to reopen tomorrow.

In the West there is a wide knowledge of Japan’s actions as an enemy of the US and Britain in the Second World War. Those, in a quasi-legal manner, were dealt with by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly known as the Tokyo war crimes-trial. Yet that tribunal, despite its official title, did not much concern itself with what had gone on in Manchuria as part of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. As America’s leading historian of 20th century Japan, John Dower, wrote in his magisterial Embracing Defeat: “The Americans who controlled the prosecution chose to grant blanket secret immunity to one group of Japanese whose atrocious crimes were beyond question, namely the officers and scientific researchers in Unit 731 in Manchuria who had conducted lethal experiments on thousands of prisoners (they were exempted from prosecution in exchange for sharing the results of the research with the Americans).”

But there is very little that modern governments of Japan can do about that now, other than to apologise; and that they have done repeatedly over the years; perhaps the most striking was the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s statement in front of dozens of heads of state in 2005, that “Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering for the people of many countries, particularly those of Asian nations.” China’s President Hu Jintao, who was present, did not react to the apology.

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in fact dates back to the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5; it was in 1895 that Japan took control of the rocky outcrops, which lie close to Taiwan rather than mainland China (let alone Japan). While I was in Tokyo I had the benefit of discussing this issue with Professor Shinichi Kitaoka, the former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, who as an eminent academic historian was the Japanese chairman of the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee which investigated the Nanking Massacre.

Kitaoka pointed out what is not in dispute: that the islands had long been administered by Japan and that they had never physically been occupied by China. He added that it was only in 1968 when it was discovered that the seabed around the islands could contain oil reserves that China raised the issue of sovereignty. He observed that Taiwan also lays claim to the islands; and, with a smile, added that the People’s Republic of China makes its own claim precisely through the belief that Taiwan is itself wholly and indivisibly part of its rightful territory.

Kitaoka, a veteran of these disputes, told me that one of the problems he had found when discussing such matters with negotiators from the People’s Republic was that over the years they would come up with different “official” views over what constitutes China’s legitimate territory: “Sometimes they would tell us ‘The Korean peninsula is ours’. On other occasions they would even show us maps on which all Asia apart from Japan and India is designated as China.”

Like many less well-informed souls, the former Japanese UN Ambassador is deeply worried by what he sees as the deliberate stoking of aggressive nationalism by the Chinese leadership. His own belief is that this stems from the demise of the Soviet Union: that with the collapse of Marxism as a unifying ideology – and witnessing what that meant for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the Chinese leadership realised that only nationalism could fill the gap. Of course, the Chinese politburo can also lay claim to the support of the public on the basis that since the reforms led by Deng Xiao Ping it has presided over an extraordinary economic transformation, and the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty.

It was only in 1968 when it was discovered that the seabed around the islands could contain oil reserves that China raised the issue of sovereignty.

That tearaway economic growth is now slowing, however; and at the same time it is becoming increasingly clear how the families of party big-wigs have become fantastically enriched through their control over the levers of economic power, especially the sale of land ostensibly owned by the people collectively. It is easy for commentators to imagine how the Chinese leadership – in a tricky period of transition – might see a row with Japan over some rocks in the East China Sea as a way of deflecting public anger from the corruption of party officials when the economy is itself entering choppy waters.

Somehow, I doubt it. If the overriding interest of the Chinese leadership is economic stability, it cannot make sense to endanger trade and investment with its most prosperous neighbour. Indeed, the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has issued instructions to the state media to desist from reporting on Japan’s alleged misdeeds.

The problem is that for some years now the Chinese government has indulged a spirit of revanchism; understandable as that might have been in the context of China’s growing economic and military might, such forces once released are almost impossible to control. Trouble, in other words.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel